A brilliant brace from Barry Hayles helped Fulham past Gillingham at Craven Cottage tonight as the First Division leaders continued their 100 per cent start to the new season.

The Whites made it eight league wins from their first eight matches with the interplay between Hayles and Louis Saha, who have plundered seventeen goals between them in the first two months of this campaign, putting paid to any hopes Gillingham had of springing a surprise. The Kent outfit, who earned a creditable League Cup draw at Manchester City in midweek, were earnest and full of endeavour but were always up against after Hayles broke the deadlock a minute before half time.

The fluency of Fulham’s football was boosted by the return of Scottish midfield maestro John Collins to the engine room and the home side recorded an important victory that resonates among the Cottage regulars after the death of Matthew Fox at the Priestfield Stadium two years ago. Jean Tigana’s side should have been ahead well before the break but Vince Bartram made a number of fine saves and referee Frazer Stratton waved away several strong penalty appeals.

Hayles swooped as the Gills defence dozed just before the interval as the former Bristol Rovers forward brilliantly chested down a pinpoint cross from full back Steve Finnan before lashing an unstoppable finish into the roof of the net. He turned for provider for Fulham’s second that arrived midway through the second half – playing in Lee Clark with a delightful pass that allowed the midfielder to leave two defenders trailing in his wake and pick his spot inside the far post.

It was left to Hayles to round off the scoring three minutes from time with an outstanding individual effort. He dribbled deep into Gillingham territory, breezed away from three tacklers and curled a wonderful finish past Bartram into the top corner. On the evidence of this display, Hayles – far from being the lower league finisher many detractors have claimed he is – could shine at the higher level that Fulham are aiming to grace from next season.

The home side could easily have hit double figures here as Gillingham wilted in the heat. Clark was denied three times by brilliant Bartram saves and the former Arsenal trainee thwarted his old team-mate Luis Boa Morte on two further occasions after the Portuguese forward stepped off the bench. The visitors had their chances as well with Maik Taylor brilliantly saving a long-range effort from former Brentford striker Carl Asaba.

FULHAM (4-4-2): Taylor; Finnan, W. Collins, Melville, Coleman; J. Collins, Clark, Goldbaek, Fernandes; Saha (Boa Morte 63), Hayles. Subs (not used): Hahnemann, Symons, Neilson, E. Lewis.


GOALS: Hayles (45, 87), Clark (66).

GILLINGHAM (4-4-2): Bartram; Edge, Hope, Ashby, Butters; Smith, Southall (James 75), Hessenthaler (J. Lewis 70), Asaba, Browning, King (Thomson 55). Subs (not used):  Patterson, Saunders.

BOOKED: Asaba, J. Lewis.

REFEREE: Frazer Stretton (Nottingham).